Buncombe County Commission

“It’s really critical for them to understand what this community looks like, feels like.”

— Laura Copeland, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce

As the latest session of the N.C. General Assembly cranks up, there’s been no shortage of efforts to bend legislators’ ears about local concerns.

But the strategies employed vary widely — and so do the costs.

At the Spartan end of the spectrum, a group of United Way-funded local nonprofits spent less than $100 on a chance to remind the Buncombe County legislative delegation about the needs of these groups’ clients. The March 31 meeting came on the heels of a much swankier affair (with a $1,556 price tag) staged three days earlier at a downtown restaurant by the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

But even that is small potatoes compared to what the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce expects to spend this coming weekend. The Chamber plans to pull out all the stops, hosting nearly 100 state legislators plus their guests for a three-day “Legislative Weekend” April 10-12, complete with a golf outing and excursions to such fun spots as Harrah’s Cherokee Casino — all to the tune of about $100,000.

These events point up the realities of politics, says Professor Gene Rainey, who teaches political science at UNCA and also serves as president of local nonprofit Our Next Generation. Rainey should know: Besides his academic credentials, he’s served time in the trenches (two terms on the Asheville City Council and two terms as chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners).

“The essence of politics is face-to-face dialogue,” says Rainey. “It’s the best kind and the most effective. And I don’t fault any of those three events nor the cost of them. I know the Chamber event probably raises eyebrows the highest, but it’s a very effective instrument to get the needs of Western North Carolina across to the legislators.”

Pressing the flesh

For a little more than an hour last week, leaders of local nonprofits gathered in the cheery confines of the Asheville YWCA to meet with three state legislators: Sen. Steve Metcalf and Reps. Bruce Goforth and Wilma Sherrill. A seat reserved for Rep. Martin Nesbitt went unclaimed; Sen. Tom Apodoca likewise didn’t make it.

About 35 people, most of them representing various agencies, turned out for the event (which was sponsored by the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County and its participating agencies). The crowd filled a meeting room facing the legislators. A handful of Asheville City Council members (including YWCA Executive Director Holly Jones) also attended, as did two Buncombe County commissioners.

The speakers touted the effectiveness of local nonprofits’ work. One of the most powerful presentations came from Teresia Withrow Miller, who credited local organizations — including Interlace, the Consumer Credit Counseling Service and Pisgah Legal Services — with helping her get back on her feet after 29 years of domestic violence and substance abuse. Noting that she’s been clean and sober for four years, Miller added that she is both holding down a job and working toward her GED.

“Now I’m married to a good man,” Miller told the group, as she pointed out her spouse in the audience (to appreciative laughter).

As people filed out of the meeting room, Sherrill offered United Way President/CEO David Bailey a hug. The gesture served to highlight one goal of the meeting: forging personal connections between the legislators and the nonprofits’ staffers and volunteers. Another goal was emphasizing the benefits nonprofits bring to the community — and to local businesses.

“You do have to remind people,” Bailey observed.

United Way Allocations Director Ron Katz told Xpress later that a $100 donation from the Irene Wortham Center Thrift Store had been set aside to pay for the meeting, though they didn’t end up spending the entire amount. The beverages were limited to coffee and ice water; the PA system was borrowed from a sponsor; and there was no charge for using the meeting room.

A downtown rendezvous

In the time-honored tradition of breaking bread together in order to improve relations, the Buncombe County commissioners and the Asheville City Council took the Raleigh delegation to dinner on March 28.

On this occasion, however, the bread came in the form of crisp baguettes served up by the Left Bank. And in the current political climate, it was hard to escape the irony of choosing a tony French restaurant with a name that evokes Paris’ more radical elements.

Perhaps it was simply an effort by politicos to reach out to the local French-expatriate community in a time of friction between the two nations. Then again, it could simply have meant that a restaurant in a convenient downtown location, with tasty food and ample room for elbow-rubbing, backslapping and ear-bending, happened to be available that night.

Either way, it made for the biggest gathering of movers, shakers and policy-makers in recent memory. And with an open bar as a social lubricant, the scene was set for some serious fence mending.

Noticeably absent was the delegation’s most senior member, Rep. Martin Nesbitt, who had a prior commitment. But Sen. Steve Metcalf and Reps. Wilma Sherrill and Bruce Goforth were on hand, and when it came time to be seated, they mixed with the Council members, commissioners and assorted spouses at two long tables. Although most of the chatter overheard consisted of breezy banter, it was hard not to notice the occasional tete-a-tete involving people of differing political stripes engaged in subdued, but clearly deeper discussions. Nonetheless, the overall atmosphere seemed decidedly friendly.

Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton — who said he thought the evening went “really well” — explained later that the city and county planned to split the $1,556 tab. Subsequently, however, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey told Xpress that although he’d at first thought public dollars would be used, he’s now told that “private individuals” will foot the entire bill for the event.

Altitude affects attitude

As of last week, 95 state lawmakers plus their guests — 180 visitors, all told — were expected to hit town for a three-day Legislative Weekend hosted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.

The schedule allows ample time for legislators and their guests to take in the local tourist sights — including jaunts downtown and to Biltmore Estate — as well as stops at UNCA, A-B Tech and Blue Ridge Motion Pictures. Excursions were also planned to Haywood, Cherokee and Yancey counties, as well as to Black Mountain and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. (At press time, the latter outing was shaping up to be quite popular, with 33 legislators signed on.)

Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Rick Lutovsky told Xpress that both the Charlotte and Wilmington chambers of commerce have hosted similar weekends designed to introduce state legislators to their communities. The idea, said Lutovsky, is to thank the legislators for their past assistance and to talk about the community’s current needs.

“It’s really critical for them to understand what this community looks like, feels like,” asserted Laura Copeland, the Chamber’s vice president of workforce development and public policy.

Lutovsky said he wouldn’t characterize the weekend as a lobbying effort, since that conjures up images of people shut in rooms listening to PowerPoint presentations. Instead, he explained, “We’ll incorporate our needs into the normal course of our activities.”

Chairman Ramsey and Commissioner David Gantt seemed enthusiastic about the plans during a meeting with Chamber officials last week.

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record,” noted Gantt, “but that’s wonderful that the Chamber’s taking that on.”

All told, the estimated budget for the weekend is about $100,000, Lutovsky reported. Most of the money was contributed by private sponsors, he added, although Buncombe County planned to chip in $10,000. The city, however, won’t be making a donation, City Manager Jim Westbrook told Xpress.

“We’re not able to put up any money for it,” he said. “But it is a ticketed event, and we’ll be able to pay for tickets for members of the City Council and a few staffers — but that’s it.”

Somehow form a group

Although some might question why legislators — who are supposed to serve the people — even need to be courted, Rainey sounded the pragmatic note of a former politician.

“You can be hit from all different angles from people asking for action,” Rainey observed. “Unless you get a clear perspective of the people’s voice that you represent, it’s easy to lose it, especially down in Raleigh. I’m sure they have lobbyists all over the place. If we don’t squeak as well, there’s not much grease coming our way. Frankly, the louder we squeak, the better.”

Rainey also noted that other voices — including the estimated 150 homeless youths in downtown Asheville — also need to be heard by state legislators (a reference, perhaps, to the work he does with Our Next Generation to establish youth centers in WNC).

The folks who aren’t being heard, suggested Rainey, need to become every bit as organized as the Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofits affiliated with United Way. It’s easy enough, he said, to form a group, buy some stationery and get moving.

“Politics is a group activity, and it’s the group voice that is heard,” declared Rainey.

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